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How the media make sense and nonsense of the world.

Adam Lambert and Tiger Woods: A Tale of Two American Idol Scandals

For the media, celebrity pain and humiliation is mother's milk


Adam Lambert and Tiger Woods. One's career trajectory is on the way up. The other's appears on the way down -- or certainly stuck in a deep, sand trap.

What do they share in common beyond celebrity? Among other things, the double-edged power of the persona or public image; the perils of image management turning on you like a hydra-headed viper; the merciless maw of celebrity gossip, and the media's penchant for cheerleading 'schadenfreude', that timeless and timely German term meaning to take pleasure from someone else's misfortune.

Schadenfreude is something at which the news and entertainment media are so deft at exploiting.  They use it to grab audiences, all the while laying blaming the audience for the media's self-directed saturation with celebrity scandals; or they piously trot out  the ever-useful "need to know rationale."

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To illustrate: A few weeks ago, as the numbers in Tiger's ever-widening bimbo eruption were up to about, oh, several,(now, close to 20) and his tempest was only just beginning to leak gaseous odors of scandal of the century proportion, MSNBC was jumping on the story like a bear on spawning salmon. On the network's status-conscious The NYT Edition with John Harwood and Norah O'Donnell, O'Donnell was literally shimmering with delight as she cast her smirking eye over this open-ended, gift that keeps on giving "this delicious scandal" -- Tiger Wood's marital crisis.

As per Norah, "covering this ‘news event' is justified, among other things, because it shows that this squeaky clean icon is human."

WTF Norah! Tiger Woods. Human! Really! Who knew?

Why the lame justification, Norah? Why not just "own" your penchant for prurience, your taste for titillation. How about just accepting your slumming for eyeballs as its own justification? Everyone else is. Oh, right: It's not about MSNBC. It's about The NYT Edition on MSNBC. Got it.

But back to our idols-in-distress. For days, Adam was the celebrity scandal de jour and his fans were still cheering last month's American Music Awards (AMA) cheeky display of (depending on your sexual color code) raunchy or raging erotic simulations, loving every kiss and freeze-framed oral sex tableau the news media and YouTube had anointed "viral."

Adam's fans didn't blink at the AMA Adamgate affair, but they did cry foul and double-standard at the cancellations of his appearances on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live and ABC's New Years Rockin' Eve.

The Lambert Controversy was afoot. Lambert Gossip fed all the entertainment engines. Adam Lambert was media-HOT and media-everywhere -- and he was working it. Hey, free publicity!

Then, like an ATM mugging, the capricious celebrity fates intervened. Adam's face was driven off the front pages of celebrity gossip by someone in Florida diving into a fire hydrant. The moment's newer scandal de jour - The Tiger Woods marital meltdown-- had begun. His coveted privacy instantly a memory, Tiger had become the star of a 24/7 celebrity roast-on every media platform on planet earth.

What had Adam's scandal cost him? A few ABC cancellations (although other gigs, including one on ABC, were already waiting in the wings). Financially, though, not much. He had no product endorsements to protect, no sponsors worried about appeasing and mollifying the so-called family values crowd.

Truth is, Adam's injury risks from the AMA scandal were light. His ship had already come in from American Idol veneration, personal appearances, and YouTube exposure. He had already staked out the gay, "bad boy," Glam Rock image. In other words, for Adam's fans, there was surprise but no shock over the AMA dust-up. He and they moved on.

I had the opportunity to read a trove of reactions to my blog on reactions to Lambert's "erotic moments at the AMA," sent to me courtesy of Teresa Walton-Helm whom, I believe, is one of the keepers of the Official Adam Lambert website. Here's a representative sample:

"...Hopefully, Adam will open some closed minds and not get bruised in the process. He is magnificent!"

"Thanks for posting. Good article. It confirms what Adam said; that it was discrimination and a double standard to blur his kiss, etc."

"Very interesting article ... Since I have followed Adam so closely during Idol, and have seen all available performances pre-Idol, none of what was shown on the AMA was particularly 'new' to me. Perhaps the change is gonna come as we have more opportunities to view gay men express their sexuality on mainstream TV. Intentionally or not Adam has cracked the door open for others to come on thru."

"Very cool and remarkable that it's in Psychology Today! Loved the last line: "The bad thing is that, indeed, it is a mad, mad world. The good thing is the times they are a-changin.'"
"wow its really getting discussed everywhere!!!!!!! I know Adam wanted to push the boundaries but I suspect he never thought it would go this far!!!"

"Very astute, and very true. And I'm sure that Adam does know there's an upside and a downside and while he might have slightly underestimated what the downside was going to be, I think he's absolutely telling the truth when he says he wouldn't do anything differently (except to sing it better, LOL)."
"Isn't it ironic that 40-50 years ago the American Psychological Association considered homosexuality a mental disorder, and now they're discussing double standards? LOL"

"Psychology today???? Now I really believe everyone is writing about Adam LOL"

Nice comments. Supportive of Adam.

Tiger Woods is another scandal narrative entirely. He had staked out the iconic, All-American athlete image and role model and was making megamillions on the PGA Tour and in endorsements. But, then on an early Black Friday morning, his life took a sharp turn toward the dark side as his Cadillac Escalade crashed into a tree and fire hydrant.  Tiger set was on course for his existential pratfall.

As days dragged by new, more lurid details of betrayal and serial, extra-marital trysts kept erupting, keeping the media messengers gasping for breath. Tiger's family and his fans were rocked, shocked and awed into anger. Media-phobic Woods was not of that world. He tried to stay out of the spotlight and limit his comments to prepared statements of contrition and regrets. He failed miserably!

Tiger cannot avoid the negative publicity, mocking gossip, the reach of the intrusive paparazzi, late night TV comedy evisceration -- or the dreaded, whiney wrath of CNN's Nancy Grace. All that's missing is a giant, Times Square running Bimbo score board.  Control the story?  "Forget it,Tiger.  It's Chinatown."

So, we have two celebrities who shocked the public and titillated the media's erogenous zone with their sexual behaviors (granted, of different orders of magnitude and personal consequence).

Lambert, unapologetic and defiant, dismissed criticisms of his "spontaneous" sexuality and bad boy image and called off the dogs of probity with a suitably terse "I'm a performer," who then went on to appear on the Barbara Walters Special, The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2009.

Adam's words and actions and outcomes seem to support the maxim there is no such thing as bad publicity - at least in the world of celebrity when your principal audience and patrons inhabit the Glam Rock youth industry of STYLE and REBELLION.

In effect, Tiger has had a crash course on the limits to that fading maxim about bad publicity when you've assumed the status of American role model an icon. Too bad he never fully grasped why athletes like basketball great Charles Barkley, publicly and repeatedly denounced the "role model" label. Barkley saw its pitfalls when living the almost unavoidable public life of a sports figure. It was a smart move indeed. Barkley has not lived the life of a choirboy and, most importantly, no one expects it of him.

Perhaps "expectations" is the operative word here.

Psychologists talk of how we react to positive and negative information we receive about someone. We judge the credibility of this information by comparing it with what we know or believe we know about this person and what we expect from this person. Given the behavioral expectations projected onto an all-American role model, especially by all-American families, Tiger could not stray too far from virtue before his fans, who admired his wholesome image as much as they admired his game, turned against him.

Tiger chose the high, tightly corseted road of public wunderkind and ubermench but those qualities were miles from his private and clearly troubled reality. He has been brought low by allegations and revelations of hyper-sexuality and serial infidelities. Much of his public, his sponsors, even his PGA brethren abandoned him and screamed ‘philandering, clay-footed fraud.'

By contrast, Adam chose the sort of the "down n' dirty road, playing quite publicly with his sexuality and is having a ball. So are his fans. Adam's road choice may not pay as well as championship golf and role model to the world. But it sure is a lot freer, a lot more authentic, even in performance mode, with a lot more room for weathering "bogies" and "bad lies."

"I am a happily married 'hetero' woman, but I have to say that the Adam/Tommy kiss is one of the hottest things I have ever seen. ... In my mind, it is not a homosexual image, or a bisexual image, it is just simply a HOT SEXUAL image. ..."

For Tiger Woods, maybe the pain of the moment is a place for him to start carefully picking through the pieces of his shattered marriage and tattered reputation. With guided help of wise celebrity friends and counselors, it can be a time for discerning the truths from the lies he has told to himself and to others. Clarity is not to be found in isolation or in compulsive serial sex encounters or hold up watching cartoons.

True, especially for rich celebrities, the multiple partner sex game can provide easily brokered, short term, often pain-numbing comforts. However, such liaisons are deafeningly blind to the long-term truths of who we are and who we should be to those in our lives that truly matter.

Oh, and Tiger, don't expect the media to help you out. It's not presently in their DNA. For them, celebrity pain and humiliation is mother's milk.

 

 

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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